Sandstorm Blog

Brand Is Not Dead, It’s on Life Support

Here Is How to Make it Healthy Again.

So, I recently heard Michael Fertik speak at SMASH Chicago 2015 and he started his talk with an incendiary statement for a room full of marketing people: “Brand is dead.” I understand why he said this, he was trying to make a point about the depth and breadth of an online reputation and overall footprint of an organization in contrast to a traditionally managed brand.

Reputation Management Is Important

I agree with him on the importance of online reputation management. I also agree with him that managing a reputation is about more than just the marketing materials that are carefully crafted and displayed to the public. I agree with him that business practices, hiring practices, sourcing practices, distribution decisions, operational structures and many other factors that were never supposed to see the light of day are now easily unearthed and actively criticized by the public.

Brand Is Not Dead, It’s Bigger

The one fundamental disagreement I have is that brand is not dead, but more important than ever in this cluttered age of information everywhere, anytime, all of the time. Brand is bigger than it once was, exactly due to the challenges of reputation management.

For example, REI has made an operation decision to close on Black Friday and encourage the public to get outside. This is a tangible representation of their campaign and has fueled their social media. It is fundamentally who they are as an organization and what the REI brand means. Another example is Zappo’s outsize customer service. They made a choice to build service on one metric, making the customer surprised and delighted. This built the Zappo’s brand to what it is today.

Branding is about your entire business, not just your logo. In order to be relevant, your brand must seep through the pores of your organization. It must be lived in how one hires, prices, serves, produces, distributes and communicates. It is the connective tissue of your organization.

Brand Experience Strategy: A Framework

The comprehensiveness of modern marketing has many marketers throwing up their hands and resorting to a scattered Whack-A-Mole approach. The antidote to this frenzied situation is brand experience strategy and planning. Creating a framework that looks at the fundamentals of an organization - like pricing, distribution, the product/service and the overall industry landscape - through the lens of a user gives you a compass to unify your marketing efforts. These users can be anyone who engages with your organization on any level, and there are usually many: employees, investors, customers and potential customers. Getting to know your users, their actions, beliefs, wants and fears, will enable you to cater to them at every touchpoint, building a brand that is big enough to cover everything modern marketing demands of you.

Brand is not dead, it is more relevant than ever. A well-researched brand experience strategy will take your brand off of life support and make it healthy again.

This blog was posted by on November 13.
Laura Luckman Kelber

About the Author

Laura Luckman Kelber

Chief Strategy Officer, Laura Luckman Kelber leads Sandstorm's team of strategists with wisdom from her 20 years of marketing experience. Combining seemingly disparate ideas to solve a problem, Laura unearths unexpected insights to help clients’ fuel their success.

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Wall Street Journal and Vistage interview of Sandy Marsico, Sandstorm

Wall Street Journal and Vistage interview of Sandy Marsico, CEO of Sandstorm®

This blog was posted by on October 15, 2015.
Will Biby

About the Author

Will Biby

Will wears many hats at Sandstorm. From writing web content to executing social media strategies, he is quick to act and insistent on a job done right. Will enjoys writing, so expect to hear from him often on the blog.

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How to Compare Content Management Systems - Goals and Requirements

Deciding which Content Management System (CMS) to use can be a daunting task. It can be difficult to sort through the plethora of irrelevant recommendations and confusing information to find the best solution. Many of our clients come to us with a rough sense of what they want, but need help making the final recommendation.

How to compare CMS?

Comparing Content Management Systems is challenging because it means different things to different people. The phrase has evolved to cover a range of web frameworks and applications. It is a broad term that covers any program which facilitates content creation and updates (usually on the web). On top of that, many popular CMS options are highly customizable – two sites built on the same framework can look very different. 

Going beyond the simple editing of an organization's "About Us" page, modern websites demand a great flexibility in how they handle content. They often need different types of content, each one requiring specific workflows or relationships aimed at solving various goals. For example, consider the differences between a blog post, an event listing, and a product detail page. Each one has unique data associated with it. Each one is organized in different ways. Being able to handle unique types of content while still providing a consistent interface is an important part of any CMS.

A CMS often has other advanced functionality. They pull content in from other systems. Some integrate with different authentication systems. Some have an online stores. Others allow a community of users to login and participate in some way. Still others might pull in raw data from one source to display it to users in a completely new way. These are all managing different kinds of content at some level. 

Create Goals

Not every site needs every possible option. So, what does it your site need? It's good to get back to your goals and requirements. Your website has needs that are just as unique as your organization. A needs-based assessment can help to focus your requirements and narrow down the search.

Start by defining your goals. Create a list of what you want to achieve with this new CMS. Starting with your goals will help to focus your efforts.

  • What problems are you looking to solve? 
  • Are you looking to increase your brand perception as part of this project? 
  • Is increased membership or sales a primary goal? 
  • If you have a current website, what is it not doing well? 
  • How will your CMS need to support your organization? 

Identify and prioritize your requirements

Once you have a good list, start writing a list of requirements. Some will just require a quick rephrase of a stated goal. Others will lead to a whole new list of items. For example, if your goal is to publish your events calendar online, but your events are currently managed in a different system, integration with that system is a potential requirement. 

Next start to prioritize these requirements. Rank your requirements from must-haves to nice-to-haves. This exercise helps you make the most informed decisions as you start to build your budget. Some items might need to come in a second phase after the first version of the site launches. 

Eliminate some options from the start

Understanding your organization's technical requirements can also help to eliminate some options. For example, if your IT infrastructure requires you to use .Net, then a Ruby, Python or PHP-based solution (like Drupal) may not be possible. More and more these restrictions are no longer a problem with modern hosting options, but it's one of the first questions to ask.

[Continue to Part 2: Consider Your Options]

This blog was posted by on July 24.
Sean Fuller

About the Author

Sean Fuller

As Technology Director, Sean is a hands-on developer and technical lead on projects. He works with design and strategist teams from kick off through launch to plan, design and execute technical solutions for client projects. 

Sandstorm had fun with these Stanley Cup-cakes

Everyone at Sandstorm is excited about the Chicago Blackhawks winning their sixth Stanley Cup! 

As we’ve all anxiously watched games throughout the season(s), we noticed something familiar. (No, not “Chelsea Dagger.”) The Hawks display core values similar to ours. (If you need a reminder they are: Learning and Sharing, Warrior Spirit, and Have Fun) We haven’t changed our business to be more hockey-centered, but the connections between our winning formula and theirs is pretty clear. 

Learning and Sharing

The Hawks are always training. They’ve never rested on their laurels from past wins. They don’t rely on their skill and natural talent. Every day they’re practicing and training to be a stronger and more agile team. They’re studying their past games to improve their performance and to make note of what their competition is doing.

Some of them have been at this for a long time, consider the coaching staff. Everyone has an experience or expertise that they can share with their teammates to help them improve.

Warrior Spirit

How much do I have to say about this? HAVE YOU EVER WATCHED THEM PLAY?!

They take every game seriously, and they have each other’s back. They’re a team first and foremost. There are stars (the ones on commercials and billboards), but on the ice they are all working toward the same goal. 

Everyone is putting out their best to win, not for themselves, but for the whole team. Look at Duncan Keith logging over 715 minutes in the postseason. Goalie, Corey Crawford shutout 25 goal attempts in Game 6 of the finals alone. That’s a LOT of Warrior Spirit. 

Have Fun

After all the hard work they’ve put in this season, now is the time to have fun. Following the intensity, the team can finally unwind. If you’ve seen the news this week, you’ll know that they have, too, in clubs, parties, and the friendly confines of Wrigley Field.

Yesterday they’ve had a ticker-tape parade through downtown Chicago with at-capacity rally in Soldier Field. They have the attention of the city and the world, and they all get the opportunity to share their excitement and win with their day with the Stanley Cup at a venue of their choosing. Many choose to go to their hometowns to share with their families and friends.

Getting to the Cup

All of these factors come together to win. We at Sandstorm don’t have a cup we’re aiming for, we just want to do good work for good people. While we’re not in the national spotlight, we work just as hard together to make great things happen. Whether it’s a responsive website or a rebranding project, our team is working to make our clients scream “GOOAALLLLLLLLLLLL!”

[Our image for this post is of delicious Stanley Cup-cakes that Alicia brought in from Bennison's. Celebration never tasted so good!]

This blog was posted by on June 19, 2015.
Will Biby

About the Author

Will Biby

Will wears many hats at Sandstorm. From writing web content to executing social media strategies, he is quick to act and insistent on a job done right. Will enjoys writing, so expect to hear from him often on the blog.

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Hamburgers Menus: A Matter of Taste (April Fools!)

[This is Sandstorm's 2015 April Fool's Day post. Enjoy!]

Anyone involved in mobile usability or mobile user interface design is familiar with the hamburger menu icon. 

But where did this icon come from? Why is it called a "hamburger"? Today we uncover it's interesting origins and how you can change how you use it on your sites to be more user friendly. 

Hamburgers and Navigation are Linked Historically

The connection between hamburgers and navigation has a long history. Hamburg the city from which the sandwich derives its name, was once known as one of the busiest port cities in all of Europe. Located on the Elbe, it has easy access to the North Sea and ultimately the Atlantic Ocean. As a hub for shipping commerce for centuries, Hamburg became well known for the production of accurate maps, compasses, and astrolabes.

Thus, the best way to get from one port to the next was, in effect, to use “Hamburger Navigation.” In fact, it is believed that the beloved sandwich came to the U.S. as the Hamburg steak served to passengers on the Hamburg-America Line steamships.

Its "Iconic" Origin

The history of the hamburger menu icon is quite unclear. While conducting our research, we encountered the earliest depiction of three parallel lines being clicked. Below you will be this example from Egyptian hieroglyphics. We are unsure whether actually touching these would have triggered a secret passage or simply were used as a guide for readers, i.e. “you are going in the right direction.”

At the time of hieroglyphics, hamburgers didn’t exist (nor did Hamburg the city). How did these Egyptian and German roots “stack up” to be the icon we know today?

One hypothesis is that while most Egyptian tombs were being excavated in the early 20th century, the popularity of the hamburger as a sandwich was rising. The more likely hypothesis is that that three horizontal parallel lines looks like a hamburger, albeit a minimalist one. (Taken literally, it looks much more like a grilled cheese or a filet-o-fish.) Or so we thought.

Finding the hamburger menu online

We did some Internet excavation of our own using the Wayback Machine. We reviewed a number of websites related to fast food burger joints. Here we encountered a revelation, the first McDonald’s website and what did we find? A hamburger menu.

While this icon directed users to the restaurant menu to order food, it’s clear that this is the first, and most literal use of this now beloved means of getting from page to page on a website. This visual cue being paired with with the historical aspect of “Hamburger Navigation,” is quite possibly the result of a happy accident.

Even today, Five Guys Burgers and Fries uses a hamburger icon for all iterations of their responsive websites.

How can we make these icons more appealing to users?

You may also be aware of some of the research related to the position of the hamburger menu and whether or not including a label with the word ‘menu’ above or below the icon increases users understanding of the icon (it does).

While we’ve adopted the practice of including labels with icons to improve user understanding and reduce the cognitive load, we’ve been experimenting with a variety of designs for the hamburger menu icon. In particular we wanted to answer the question, can a more realistic hamburger icon affect the site’s user experience? If so, what factors contribute to a better experience? Below are some of the icons we tested along with their results.


Result: Users experienced minimal usability issues but felt the overall site experience was missing something.
Recommendation: Consider toppings to improve visual appeal. Remember, users navigate with their eyes!


Result: Very few usability issues uncovered. 85% of users tested found this to be the most satisfying version.
Recommendation: Your go-to icon for most audiences. Consider adding a fried egg and bacon to enhance the experience.

Double Cheeseburger

Result: Users anticipated a longer menu due to the additional layers. Some users felt tired after navigating. 
Recommendation: A/B test to determine the appetite for site pages from your users.

Triple Cheeseburger

Result: Inconclusive, very few users were able to complete all tasks in the study. Caused confusion among international audiences.
Recommendation: Less is more. May be useful when you need to increase the size of your user base.

Hot Dog

Result: Tested well with children.
Recommendation: Avoid the use of ketchup.

Chicken Sandwich

Result: Great usability but the experience came across as dry.
Recommendation: Consider toast as possibility instead of a kaiser roll or spice it up with some hot sauce!

Veggie Burger

Result: No usability issues uncovered but users were generally dissatisfied with the experience.
Recommendation: Not suitable for the main menu. Save this for the side navigation on the desktop version.


The more delicious the user perceives the hamburger to be, the better the user experience. Get to know your users, preferences vary depending on the use case.


Hieroglyphics -
Grilled Cheese:

If you haven’t realized yet, this post is a complete joke. Happy April Fool’s. Here’s the real history of the hamburger icon.

This blog was posted by on April 1.
Michael Hartman

About the Author

Michael Hartman

As Sandstorm's Technology and Usability Director, Michael leads our developers and usability researchers in creating web sites and applications—both desktop and mobile—that embody our favorite blend: intuitive user experience and dynamic Drupal development.

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Cache clearing menu

At Sandstorm, we do a lot of website maintenance. That can mean many different types of things like development of new site components, updating old content or creating new content. With each of these different types of work there is a popular issue that can cause panic: he or she forgets to clear his or her caches after making the updates.

Nothing changed. Is the site broken?

If you’ve ever maintained a website, or maybe just updated content on one, you may have come across a situation where it looks as though your edits didn’t save. This ultimately leads into what seems like a broken website, but turns out (after consulting a developer) that you just need to “clear your cache”.

What is “cache”?

Like most people, myself included, when this first happens you are probably wondering what in the world is a “cache”. Google will tell you that it is “a collection of items of the same type stored in a hidden or inaccessible place,” but that makes me even more confused. In layman’s terms, cache is a save file that allows web pages to load faster.  

When you arrive at a website, your browser takes elements of that page and saves them locally into “cache”. This way, the next time you decide to visit that specific page, your browser is going to remember how it looked the last time and, instead of downloading those pieces again, it will use what is stored in the cache to build the page. This results in a great performance boost. Unfortunately, it can, at least appear to, be a nightmare for content editors who don’t understand why their changes are not showing up on the live site.

It’s an easy issue to address

Even with this knowledge, I still come by this simple issue every so often (so don’t feel bad if you do, too). What you should remember is to clear your browser’s cache, refresh the page and see if your edits are now in place (this is particularly easy on a Drupal site). If your changes are not there after that, then you can run frantically to your local developer or IT department. Assure them that you did clear your cache, and this may actually be a real bug.

This blog was posted by on December 31.
Kyle Lamble

About the Author

Kyle Lamble

Kyle is your stereotypical bluehat hacker, by day, who wants you to upgrade your browser to support his love for cutting edge web development techniques. By night, he is a curator and publisher of art. Co-founder of Loosey Goosey Art, Kyle spends much of his off time helping artists find their inner potential.

Engineering Custom Technical Solutions in Drupal

I really enjoy engineering technical solutions. When one of our clients told us that their Single Sign-On (SSO) vendor would not be ready for site launch, I jumped at the opportunity to help build an alternative method. Instead of authenticating users using the third party system with a contributed Drupal module, we would need to switch gears and authenticate against their existing in-house system. To do, so we developed a custom Drupal module that authenticated users, created their Drupal user account, and brought over the necessary user specific data fields.

This approach used a centralized authentication site that passes a token back to the requesting site, which is then verified for validity. Ultimately implementing this solution allowed the client’s multiple systems to share one login method and keep users logged in while navigating between them.

I particularly enjoyed solving the problem and ultimately coming to the client’s rescue. We’ve launched their site, which you can read about in Emily’s post, and have this added knowledge to help our clients in the future.

This blog was posted by Andy on December 16, 2014.
Andy Cullen

About the Author

Andy Cullen

Someday I'll need a real bio, but for now I'm busy creating awesomeness for our clients!

Seeing the Possibilities, Pushing our Drupal Web Development, and Showing Off with the Sandstorm Website

Earlier in the year, I was fortunate enough to take part in launching the new Sandstorm website in Drupal. For those of you who’ve been here before, you know it’s a long winding road from the initial concept, marketing, content strategy, and design before you even begin the black magic known as Drupal web development.

It’s an ongoing, almost never ending, process.

Once you push through those phases and launch your first website, it can come as a surprise, to some, that the website isn’t actually complete. In fact, some of the most exciting features from the initial concept may have not made it into the final product. Instead, at launch, you’re more likely left with a large todo list of development ideas you would still like to see implemented.

What can we do next?

This is when most of us toss around the phrase “phase two”, but a website is, and always will be, a work in progress. This is one of the most exciting parts about working on the Sandstorm website in Drupal, because I knew when developing each section that this was just the first draft. Now that we are finishing up the year I have begun thinking about our website again. A year is a long time and, with “learning and sharing” being one of the core values at Sandstorm, I have learned a lot and can’t wait to begin pushing our Drupal development further than where it is right now.  

“The Results”

A new website, responsive web design or Drupal module is a great way to see each department flex their creative muscles and show the industry what we can really do, and good work immediately pays off. The increase in high-quality leads led to new clients, which led to our explosive growth, which ultimately led to taking over that office next door. This might be one of the coolest aspects of the entire project.

This blog was posted by on December 14, 2014.
Kyle Lamble

About the Author

Kyle Lamble

Kyle is your stereotypical bluehat hacker, by day, who wants you to upgrade your browser to support his love for cutting edge web development techniques. By night, he is a curator and publisher of art. Co-founder of Loosey Goosey Art, Kyle spends much of his off time helping artists find their inner potential.

5 Tips for Improved Video Marketing

The days of debating the merits of video marketing are over. With 100 million viewers watching at least one online video per day, it’s no wonder that 87% of content marketers are now integrating some form of video content into their campaigns.

However, while the majority of content marketers are actively employing video marketing, there are still a lot of unanswered questions about optimizing video content for the best results. These five tips will help you create video marketing content that’s worth your investment.

1. Establish a Goal Up Front

Video is a tool for a achieving a goal, not the goal itself. Before you begin, make a solid decision on what you’d like your video marketing content to achieve. Is it spreading the word about a promotion? Driving traffic to your website? Providing answers to viewer questions?

Once you’ve established a clear objective, it will be easier to make use of my next tip...

2. Trim Off the Fat

Because video marketing is viewed as a large expense, it’s common for marketers to try to use one video to send out multiple messages. Resist this urge.

Video audiences are impatient. They hit the play button with expectations and will not hesitate to click away if those expectations aren’t met. If you don’t get to the point, and get to it fast, you’ll be putting on a show for an empty house.

Ask yourself, “what’s the one central message we want viewers to come away with?” and cut everything else. No exceptions.

But wait! What if you have different audience segments, and you need a different message for each one? That brings me to my next tip...

3. One Size Doesn’t Have to Fit All

Contrary to popular belief, video is not an inflexible medium. It can easily be adjusted to meet the needs of different audiences.

The best way to tailor video marketing content is to produce multiple versions. People are often reluctant to do this because they think making more than one video won’t be cost effective. That assumption simply isn’t true. If you plan carefully, you can economize many aspects of production to turn your single video into a video series without draining the bank.

For instance, you may be able to record two voiceover tracks within the same session fee, or recycle footage from one video to the next.

Publish each video in the right place with the right keywords, and your video marketing content will yield much better results.

4. Embrace the Brand

If you want to build brand recognition, your logo can’t do all the work! Many marketers only brand their video content through graphics, but there are many opportunities to solidify your brand within your video marketing content.

  • Start with the script. Don’t just proof for message. Take the time to put all dialogue or voiceover in the right voice and tone for your company.
  • Think through your casting. The talent featured in your video should be a reflection of your brand personality.
  • Consider location. Even if you can’t afford a set stylist, make sure to pull in your brand colors wherever possible. A red mug on the desk or orange curtains in the background can go a long way toward building brand recognition within your video content. Wardrobe offers further opportunities to solidify the brand identity in your audience’s mind.
  • Make direction a priority. A good director will take your brand into account in everything from the style of camerawork to the lighting setup. A good editor will consider your brand in the pace and tone of the video, as well as soundtrack selection.

In short, if you want to increase brand recognition, the brand must be present throughout your video marketing content.

5. Don’t Settle

Video audiences have extremely high expectations. They’re used to Hollywood scale productions and are unforgiving of content that falls short of this bar.

No one expects you to have action movie special effects, but they do want to see a clear picture and hear crisp sound without interference (in video terms, this would be referred to as having “high production values”).

More importantly, they want to see content that lands. If your video is supposed to be funny, don’t accept a joke that doesn’t make you laugh. If it’s supposed to tug the heartstrings, don’t settle for a story you don’t care about.

At the end of the day, the extra effort will pay off in higher audience retention and better results.

Putting it All Together

While some of these points may seem intuitive, a vast majority of video marketing ignores these rules. Apply them to your next video and your content will be ahead of the game. With a stronger video component to your content marketing strategy, you are opening your brand to more user engagements and ultimately a higher return on your investment.

This blog was posted by on November 20.
Kellye Blosser

About the Author

Kellye Blosser

Kellye’s unique approach involves a delicate balance of left and right-brained thinking. She most recently hailed from the corporate video world. Here at Sandstorm, she’s excited to bring strategic, innovative thinking to every project.

What is SEO and SEM?

We’ve all been there. People talk about Search Engine Marketing and Search Engine Optimization and we just nod and smile. We then wonder, “What is Search Engine Marketing and Search Engine Optimization?” Well, here’s an overview and why you should care.

What is Search Engine Optimization?

When you have a website, or even just a page, you want to make sure people can find you. If you’re selling a product, a service, retail, wholesale, or soliciting nonprofit donations, Search Engine Optimization, or SEO, helps bring people to your website.

How does that work?

Search engines like Bing, Google, and Yahoo! (the “SE” in SEO) regularly index the Internet, crawling around and noting what kind of content is on websites across the web. Whenever someone searches for “socks” or “melamine,” search engines look for websites with those keywords and phrases and display them on their results pages. This is sometimes called organic optimization because the result order happens by way of natural or “organic” indexing of sites. These positions cannot be purchased, but can be influenced by optimization.

Okay, so how do I “optimize?”

Keywords and key phrases! If you’re selling melamine sock organizers, it helps to periodically research what words and phrases your potential customer uses in searches. Do they look for “melamine sock caddy” more often? Perhaps they’ve adopted slang or creative spellings such as “sox” or phrases like “getting my socks in a row.”

When you’ve identified the keywords and key phrases your customers and potential clients are searching for, you can start making sure they’re included in your website pages, blog posts, social media posts, and any company profiles you have on Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, or other websites.

So, what is Search Engine Marketing?

Search Engine Marketing, or SEM, is the umbrella term for, well, all forms of search engine marketing. Whereas SEO focuses only on organic search results, SEM includes paid advertising on search engines. Google, Bing, Yahoo!, and others sell advertising space in the form of search results.

When someone searches for “socks” or “melamine,” they will find ads beside the organic results, organized by keyword bids and ranking in addition to relevance. These ads are typically at the top of search results, before the organic spots, or in a sidebar to the right.

So, how does that work?

There are a couple different services search engines offer. Perhaps the most commonly known service is Pay-Per-Click, or PPC. This displays ads alongside search results for a set period of time and within your budget.

You only pay when your ads are clicked on by users and you can set a budget that fits your business. (So, you don’t end up owing a search engine your first born.) If your budget is set at $20 per month, the search engine will offer up your ad until you reach your limit. When the $20 worth of clicks are achieved, the ad stops showing and you won’t be charged further.

You should care!

Search Engine Optimization and Search Engine Marketing are important foundational pieces in your marketing activities. Search engines are a pivotal driver of traffic to websites. More traffic means more opportunity for sales, donations, new clients, or readers.

If you don’t have an expert in-house you can easily find a partner to help get your SEO and SEM campaigns off the ground, or steer them in a more focused and effective direction. No matter what your target, business model, or traffic goals are, SEO and SEM can effectively scale your digital presence.

This blog was posted by on .
Jason Dabrowski

About the Author

Jason Dabrowski

Jason is one of Sandstorm’s designers and also helps keep the office running smoothly. As a veteran of the theatre—from acting to directing, lighting to set design—he knows the value of hard work and a positive attitude. Look for his unique voice on the blog.

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